Unlikely Gabon lead trio to London
© AFP

Following a dramatic fortnight at the CAF U-23 Championship, Gabon, Morocco and Egypt have qualified for the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament by claiming the top three spots in the first continental event at this age group. The host Moroccans were stunned in Saturday’s final 2-1 by the Gabonese, who came from behind to win the match and claim the laurels en route to their first Olympic finals.

Recovering from a slow start to the event, the Baby Panthers successfully completed a shock run to a first-ever continental final, triumphing over three of the best sides at the event as their momentum increased. Despite the defeat, Morocco had already assured themselves a place at London 2012 by reaching the final, while Egypt beat Senegal 2-0 in the third-place match to qualify for their 11th Olympiad. The Senegalese will play-off with an Asian team next year for a second chance at the games.

Panthers get nine lives
Gabon, who are co-hosts of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations early next year, came to Morocco flying well under the radar, but there were hints of the team’s toughness in qualifying, where they beat Mali 1-0 in Bamako with an extra-time winner to reach the U-23s. But after opening the event with a 1-0 setback to Egypt and then needing a late goal to draw South Africa 1-1, they were expected to go home when faced with Côte d’Ivoire in a must-win Group B contest.

Behind 1-0 at half-time from a deflected goal, the Baby Panthers rallied at the break and took the lead within minutes of the restart with a goal from Emmanuel Mba Ndong and a penalty from Henri Junior Ndong. Despite going down to ten men near the hour mark, the Gabonese held their nerve and added to their lead for a 3-1 win that sent them into the last four on a head-to-head tie-breaker over the Baby Elephants. Again underdogs in the semi-final against Senegal - who impressively topped Group A ahead of Morocco, Nigeria and Algeria - the Gabonese held on against the tide of the game, and substitute Andre Biyogho Pocko scored the only goal just a minute before a penalty shoot-out would have decided matters.

This is the biggest victory in Gabonese football history and words cannot describe our happiness. It's a moment of intense joy.
Gabon coach Claude Albert Mbourounot

Against the heavily favoured and supported hosts in the final, Gabon went behind after Younes Mokhtar opened the scoring in the 21st minute. But again the Baby Panthers showed a venomous bite when cornered, bulging the net twice before half-time through Landri Obiang Obiang and Allen Nono. Coach Pim Verbeek’s Lionceaux rallied after the break, but their challenge was hopelessly derailed after goalkeeper Yassine El Kharroubi was sent off while thwarting a Gabonese counterattack.

After the result, Gabon’s celebrations were worthy of their Cinderella story. “This is the biggest victory in Gabonese football history and words cannot describe our happiness. It's a moment of intense joy,” said Gabon coach Claude Albert Mbourounot. Midfielder and captain Cedric Boussoughou added: "I am elated, and the whole nation of Gabon deserves the celebrations and to feel proud of what we have achieved tonight. We have made history, and it feels great to be part of this history making side.”

Dutchman Verbeek, who coached Australia at South Africa 2010, was also full of praise for the surprise champions. “Gabon‘s team spirit and determination have impressed me. They fight for every ball and never give up.”

Two familiar faces
Undoubtedly, Verbeek was not too displeased after leading Morocco to their seventh Olympics, but he must have regretted in-form midfielder Abdelaziz Barrada's return to his club Getafe before the final. The 22-year-old had scored twice in the first ten minutes and was involved in the third goal in the 3-2 win over the semi-final over Egypt. Barrada also converted the penalty in the vital 1-0 win over Nigeria to open the event, which made him co-top scorer along with Nigeria’s Raheem Lawal who scored all of his goals in a hat-trick against Algeria. The self-proclaimed Dream Team from Nigeria have had the most Olympic success of any African nation, winning gold in 1996 and silver in 2008. However, their 4-1 win over the Algerians to close out Group A provided their only points, and coach Austin Eguavoen was sacked even before the end of the tournament.

Almost as important as the final on Saturday was the third-place match that saw Egypt claim the final automatic qualifying spot with a 2-0 victory over the Senegalese. Goalkeeper Ahmed El Shenawi was in top-notch form for the Baby Pharaohs, who will be appearing in their first Olympics in two decades. Striker Ahmed Sherwida and midfielder Saleh Gomaa scored the vital goals either side of half-time.

“We came here seeking to qualify for the Olympic Games in London next year, and we have achieved that goal,” said Egypt coach Hany Ramzy, who said qualifying for the Olympics could help put a difficult time for Egyptians in the background. “We will celebrate tonight and then head back home and continue with our through preparations for London 2012.”